When I was 17, I was in a therapist’s chair telling her how little I had eaten that week and how I had worked out to the point of exhaustion, lamenting that my body didn’t resemble a telephone pole. Uncharacteristically of her, she interrupted me with a couple of earth-shattering questions that had never come close to the realm of my consciousness: “What if this is what your body is supposed to look like? What if you look exactly the way you are supposed to?”
At this age, we are not wired to fully understand what a healthy body image consists of and instinctively take cues from the people around us when it comes to creating the way we measure ourselves. As photo-centric platforms became increasingly popular, hashtags like #thinspiration and #fitspo began to litter outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and now it seems social media has formed the barometer with which people compare themselves. Part of my longing to look like someone other than myself came from the idea that I needed to have an inspiration board on Pinterest, reminding me of what my “goal body” consisted of.
Happily, today, we are quick to denounce old quotes like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” But while the social platforms of my high school days differ drastically from those people use now, a subtler trend has arisen that is just as dangerous as the overt “eat less” messaging of the past. The body positivity movement reached full swing over the last few years, mirrored by wellness trends and eventually hashtags geared towards self-acceptance. Social media users now are familiar with a less noticeably caustic atmosphere, however, it’s one with a dark inclination underneath.
The nature of Instagram is to showcase the best parts of yourself, especially when it comes to appearance. While being proud of who you are and using social media as a form of self-expression is valuable, a slope to devastating comparison lies on the other side. “Taking pictures of thigh gaps, short t-shirts showing off tight abs, and all of the dieting, exercise, and lifestyle ‘gurus’ pushing weight loss and body-perfecting programs… In order to stay connected on social media, people cannot avoid these potential triggers,” says professional counselor and nutrition health coach, Sarah Thacker.
For instance, Kim Kardashian posts a new photo of herself daily — often in nearly no clothes — all in the name of being comfortable and confident in her own skin. However, her Snapchat and Instagram stories show her constant exercise, commitment to eating extremely little, and unhealthy product ads. The woman who wrote an entire exposé about teaching her daughter, North, to love every aspect of herself also posted a minutes-long Instagram Story of her sisters complimenting her “anorexic” look.
First of all, one cannot “look” anorexic because anorexia intrinsically takes countless forms. Secondly, it’s hard to imagine a world in which a video like this wouldn’t be triggering for anyone who feels self-conscious about their body. Finally, it is abundantly clear that the lip service she paid to the body positivity movement does not translate to her everyday life.
“The once-promising term ‘body positivity’ has turned into a buzzword.”
Instagram catapulted everyday people doing everyday things to stardom and monetized the result. As it becomes increasingly imperative to position your social media account in an accepting light, body positivity seems like another box to check in the quest to expand your influence. The body positivity movement has become commodified into an item that, in order to be a well-rounded influencer, you need to have in your personal brand.
The once-promising term “body positivity” has turned into a buzzword, disguising detrimental tendencies of the past. “Anytime something is the ‘thing of the moment’ it can get over-exploited and used for commercialism which manipulates emotions and insecurities by its very nature,” explains Thacker. “The body positivity movement is at risk of being in that category.”
The detrimental side of the body positivity movement is twofold; what started as a way for people to feel good about themselves morphed into a materialized, unceasing version of its original purpose. In addition to toxic comparison, the constant saturation of “motivational” quotes and images about the body create a lifestyle centered around its appearance. Even with good intentions, the constant stream of these messages brings users’ attention back to their eating and exercise habits.
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The disconnect between the movement and social media therein lies in the trend’s inability to encompass the core of the problem. From the outside, saying you believe in accepting yourself may seem like a good example — and don’t get me wrong, a lot of times it is. But fixation on what your body looks like, good or bad, often masks the deeper issue. As Thacker notes, “For someone who is constantly focusing on the body, these messages may appear helpful, but they can perpetuate that focus rather than helping them improve their relationship with themselves.”
The origination of the body positive movement was a good thing, as it served a vital purpose in the backlash against glorifying one physique. Gradually, though, the pursuit decayed into a way to increase social media influence and produced an idea that the modern woman needs to integrate into her life — from the outside. While social media platforms were never perfect, and likely never will be, pressure to look a certain way simply changed forms.
My hope is that people will begin to have conversations outside of their screens, focusing less on their bodies and more on living a life they are proud of. Influencers aspire to be an authority in most aspects of their followers’ lives; eventually, I hope people realize that, in life, one size never fits all.